Those motorists stuck in snarled eastbound traffic on Ygnacio Valley Rd. leading onto Kirker Pass Road during the July 23 commute can blame the Matchbox Twenty concert at the Sleep Train Pavilion. But they can take solace in the fact that there won’t be another concert at the venue for an entire month and not a single other weekday event this year.
While drivers and those in and around the Pavilion will be happy about that, the city of Concord, which owns the facility, is more than a little concerned about the lack of activity in the venue. Over the past three seasons, operator Live Nation has presented just 11 concerts a year, and its contract is set to expire this year.
To see what’s next for the Pavilion, it helps to take a look back.
60 to 70 events a season
The Concord Pavilion opened in May 1975 and was run by the city while Live Nation Worldwide (and predecessor companies) has operated the Pavilion since 2000.
Concord Mayor Dan Helix has a lot of history with the facility. As mayor and a city councilman in the early 1970s he negotiated with developer Ken Hofmann to get 122 acres of rolling land as a site for the Pavilion. It was part of a large parcel of more than 300 acres on Kirker Pass Road that Hofmann was looking to develop for homes.
The venue was originally constructed as an 8,500-seat amphitheater designed by world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry and costing $4.5 million.
In the early 1980s, with the summer concert business becoming more competitive and much larger amphitheaters springing up around the country, the city decided to expand the Pavilion. That project began at the end of the 1995 season and the new 12,500-capacity version, also designed by Gehry, opened in August, 1996. It was expected that increased capacity would enhance the viability of attracting larger, more lucrative acts. With the new construction also came a $20.1 million price tag and yearly debt service many times the original $220,000 annual bond retirement from 1975.
In the 1970s and 80s the Pavilion regularly would host 60-80 events during a season that extended from April through October. During those busy early years of the Pavilion the venue drew most major artists (aside from “stadium-caliber attractions”) in rock, pop, country, jazz, R&B and classical music. In addition there were numerous free and low-priced concerts and community events, which have totally disappeared from the Pavilion calendar.
Promoter takes reins
The city of Concord ceased operating the Pavilion after the 1999 season, turning over operations to SFX Entertainment, the successor to Bill Graham Presents – which had done concert booking at the Pavilion since 1985. When the operating contract first went into effect in the 2000-2003 time period there were 26-29 concerts annually with total attendance ranging from 153,000-190,000.
But since 2003 there have only been three years with as many as 20 concerts and only once in the past five years have there been more than 11 Pavilion shows. Annual attendance has been under 100,000 each of those years, even while the average per-concert attendance has been the highest during the 13 years of the contract.
Joan Carrico, Concord’s Director of Community and Recreation Services, is the staff person overseeing the Pavilion. The Clayton resident expects that the city will soon be soliciting formal proposals for the contract starting in 2014. She reports city staff and the city council have already held closed sessions to discuss the Pavilion’s future.
Helix, who returned to the city council in 2011, says, “We won’t be able to return the Pavilion to its ‘glory years’ but we can do a lot better than we have been. We’re looking at alternatives [for operating and booking].”
Live Nation is responsible for paying the city a $500,000 rental fee plus $3 per ticket surcharge. The contract with Live Nation has been renegotiated three times (most recently in March 2011) as the promoter produced fewer and fewer events in Concord, yet the modified arrangement still did not bring more acts to the Pavilion.
Live Nation did not respond to phone calls and email from the Pioneer to comment on the season or their intentions to seek a contract extension.
Challenges to operate
Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of Pollstar, a leading concert industry trade publication and website, says that Live Nation owns and/or operates “90 percent of the summer amphitheaters around the county.” He says that Live Nation only sells underperforming venues to outside interests who are buying for real estate purposes and not to keep as a concert venue.
An industry insider explained that the Pavilion contract has several challenges for an operator, including a separate food and beverage arrangement between the city and concessionaire Aramark that runs through 2020 and limits the possibility of a promoter gaining sufficient ancillary income above ticket sales from underperforming concerts. He added that the lack of concert dates impacts selling box seats and sponsorships as well. Aramark’s predecessor paid $2 million in 1995 to help fund the Pavilion expansion in return for a long-term contract.
Another issue at Concord is the need for capital improvements. With the city owning the building – yet going through its own economic challenges – any promoter is unlikely to pledge large sums for new amenities to keep the venue up to industry standards.
Bongiovanni cites three California-based potential companies most likely to enter the bidding with Live Nation to operate the Pavilion. Other industry observers confirmed his list.
AEG Live is a national promoter that operates 35 venues around the country (“not big in amphitheaters,” according to Bongiovanni) including the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. As well as being North America’s largest producer of festivals, AEG is also involved in professional soccer.
Another Planet Entertainment is an East Bay company formed in 2003 by long-time Bill Graham Presents executives Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman. They produce the wildly-successful Outside Lands Festival every year in San Francisco and book the Greek Theatre concert series in Berkeley. The duo was also very involved with booking acts into Concord for many years.
Nederlander Concerts was the exclusive booking agent for the Pavilion from 1979-1984 before being displaced by BGP in 1985. Nederlander was the original national amphitheater promoter and still operates throughout the West Coast including San Jose Civic and Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. The family-owned company is a major producer of Broadway shows and is partner in Shorenstein Hays Nederlander of San Francisco.
“The problem is not the size of the venue but competition from other venues in the Bay Area,” Bongiovanni says, mentioning the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View (22,500 capacity), Berkeley’s Greek Theatre (8,500) and Mountain Winery in Saratoga (2,500).
Whatever the outcome in finding an operator for seasons to come Helix is adamant that the city “can’t assume any risk” in meeting its annual obligations to make Pavilion financing payments and he’s “very enthusiastic about re-invigorating the Pavilion and returning the facility to a vibrant community asset.”
There’s a concert biz adage that “there are no bad acts, just bad deals.” The months and years ahead will test that truism in Concord.
Editor’s note: The author was on the original Concord Pavilion staff and did the venue’s marketing for 25 years.